I did not enjoy this film. Knowing that African Queen was a Bogart and Hepburn movie, I went into this excited, looking for a respite from an otherwise depressing list of assignments. I’m accustomed to the quirks of early-mid 20th century movies, so I thought this would be a harmless, charming film. Instead, I was bothered by the movie’s portrayal of Africa, Germans, and women.
The first scene of the movie opens in a Christian church service somewhere in East Africa. The indigenous people gathered there are singing Western hymns, or, at least, they are attempting to. The opening shots are loud, chaotic, and the only time it is possible to make out the hymn being sung is when the camera pans over to the two white missionaries, who are clearly overheated and frustrated with the pandemonium. After several agonizing moments, a fight breaks out between a few Africans outside the church, and more Africans rush out of the church to join the fray. The English missionaries are disgruntled, of course. A short while later, we see Germans storm into the local village and kidnap Africans to serve in the army. After that, we do not see any more Africans except in a few short seconds towards the end of the movie. For a movie named after and set in Africa, the main characters, who dominate most of the screen time, are unquestionably white. I was uncomfortable from the very beginning of this movie because of the way it condescendingly portrayed the Africans as disorderly, loud, unorganized, and violent. The shot in the church was also a painful reminder of how Western religions were deliberately weaponized and used as a means of colonization – it didn’t seem like any of the Africans particularly enjoyed the Christian service, and yet because of the colonialist influence, the missionaries persisted (gross). The rest of the movie’s portrayal of Africa struck me as problematic simply because it seemed disingenuous. There were frequent shots of giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, monkeys, an assortment of birds, insects, and even leeches. And yet rather than seeming natural, it was as if the movie wanted to take me on a safari ride through Africa, pointing out all the exotic animals, without really stopping to consider if those shots fit easily into the natural flow and needs of the film. There’s also a truly horrific moment when Katherine Hepburn’s character, Rose, sees a patch of beautiful flowers beside a river and claims that she bets no one has ever seen them before and so they must not have a “proper” name. The Africans have seen the flowers, Rose. They’ve seen them.
Because African Queen is a British-American movie centered around WWI, it is anti-German. The Germans in the movie were immediately villainized, and they existed only as enemies of the main characters. I noticed that there were no subtitles of the German lines in the film, which is something I typically expect out of movies with foreign languages in them today. Movies have subtitles so that viewers can understand all the dialogue as it is necessary to advance the plot forward or reveal truths about the speakers. The absence of subtitling, although it could have merely been unfashionable at the time, makes me think that the filmmakers deliberately did not want viewers to understand the Germans. The Germans are not complex characters within the movie, just villains, and their harsh cries and orders are supposed to reinforce the negative emotions that surrounded Germans during this era. Therefore, it is unnecessary to understand what they are saying. The mere sound of the language would have been enough to trigger those negative emotions.
The gender roles in this movie made me want to poke my eyes out, or at the very least, go chop down a tree in order to prove my capabilities to myself. Rose is the epitome of the good English girl. In the beginning, she is pious, devout, and chaste. She hides her chemise and slip when she is bathing off the boat, and makes Humphrey Bogart’s character, Charlie, avert his head when he helps her up. She initially refuses to sleep under the same awning as Charlie does, relenting only because of a rainstorm. When she learns of the war, she immediately wants to “do her bit” by blowing up the German boats. She is patriotic, godly, and beautiful (and tragically boring). After falling in love with Charlie, she loosens up. She addresses him fondly, initiates physical intimacy, lets him see her in her underclothes, takes down her hair, and cozies up to his body whenever she can. And yet she is still the good English girl – she affirms his manliness and strength to him at every turn. She inundates him with sickening lines like, “You’re the bravest man I ever met,” and “There’s no man in the world like you, dear.” Because of this, I think the viewers in the 50’s would have forgiven her sudden “loose” morals and familiarities on the boat, because she is still staying within her place as a woman. She is an object of beauty for Charlie to stare at, while constantly reassuring him of his masculine strength and prowess (gross). She even remains pious, by praying to God in their moments of need. Charlie responds in keeping with tradition. He is the manliest of men: single-handedly repairing the boat, rescuing them from the flies, drinking too much liquor, and referring to Rose in demeaning, gendered terms. Both characters manage to be perfect encapsulations of who they are supposed to be.
All things considered, I found the plot of this movie to be incredibly slow-moving, the characterization of people and events to be unbelievable (Rose immediately stops grieving over her dead brother? The torpedo just happens to blow up the ship as the nooses are being lowered? The Sayer siblings didn’t hear about the war until thirty seconds before the Germans showed up in the village?), and the endless scenes in the boat to be repetitive. But more than that, I was distressed by the way the movie so casually treated issues like race, colonization, war, and gender. Maybe I should be thankful for my education and for the way it allows me to identify when pieces of classic art or entertainment engage with historical moments in a problematic way. Or maybe I’m just pissed that now I can’t enjoy a Humphrey Bogart film because I can’t turn my English Major brain off. Either, way, 2/5 bottles of gin, would not recommend.
And I gave it those two bottles solely for genuinely great euphemism: when a windswept, breathless, disheveled Rose exclaims, “I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!” Me too, Rose.
Word Count = 1121, I pledge.